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OPINION: Victim or bully? Schools need to create more choices

The January suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince in Massachusetts reminds us yet again of how devastating bullying becomes for children and teens - from the severe depression and anxiety of millions of students across America to the spate of school shootings triggered by similar circumstances.

After each highly publicized tragedy there are calls to do something new. We have implemented zero tolerance policies and recess coaches, and states are passing legislation to amp up punishments for bullies and school administrators who do nothing to intervene. Legislators in both Albany and Suffolk County are pushing new bills after the suicide of 17-year-old Alexis Pilkington, of West Islip, last month - even though family members think cyberbullying was not a factor in her death.

And even though none of these after-the-fact interventions are likely to make much difference.

Instead, schools must take responsibility for transforming their bully societies into compassionate communities in the first place. New laws that protect students from cyber- or real-time bullying will at best get rid of the most recent instigators in a particular place and time, but they do nothing to create a culture where students can trust one another, the real antidote to bullying.

While tempting, it's not worth spending time analyzing whether bullying is worse now than a generation ago. It was bad then, and it is bad now.

But it is important to recognize that kids respond to being bullied in more extreme ways today. In 2008, researchers at the Yale School of Medicine reviewed studies from 13 countries, and found a connection between being bullied and suicide in children. It's become common enough that the term "bullycide" has been coined for suicides incited by bullying.


I've been studying school bullies and victims for 15 years. Many students have told me that they learned early that they had two choices in their school's battlegrounds: They could be the victim or the bully.

Boys in particular feel pressure to demonstrate that they are tough and masculine, and that they will use violence against other boys to prove themselves. They call other boys gay to trumpet their own attraction to girls. Gay-bashing - against both gay and straight students - becomes a norm in many schools. For the same reasons, boys also sexually harass girls.

For their part, girls feel pressure to prove that boys are attracted to them. Other girls seen as threatening this sought-after perception are often called sluts.

Phoebe, an Irish immigrant, was targeted because she had dated a popular senior football player in her first weeks at the school as a freshman. Other girls believed she was invading their territory and called her "Irish slut" and "whore." Her suicide recalls the brutal murder of Reena Virk, a dark-skinned girl who was killed in Canada in 1997 by girls who were angry that Reena had called some of the boys that the wealthier, white girls believed belonged to their exclusive social group.

Such racism and ethnic prejudice, mixed with gender violence, comes from values pervasive in the adult world. In fact, the bully society in schools is similar to the workplace bullying adults sometimes face. In the absence of alternative values, the cutthroat competition and discrimination prevalent in the larger society infiltrates schools and recreates similar power plays among children.

Students desperately want authentic friendships and connections. They find, though, that in school, their relationships are largely instrumental - students trade each other's secrets as information capital; they exploit their sexual interactions to try to become popular; and they compromise their former values to be accepted.

Where students look for friendship, intimacy and self-acceptance, they instead are tutored to mistrust. Why wouldn't they? Punishment for going against the expectations of those students perceived as popular may well land them at the bottom of their school's hierarchy and render them a target of relentless abuse.

Yes, a recess coach - a measure being tried now in many parts of the country - might help prevent harassment from taking place on the playground. But it does little to teach students how to relate to one another in deeper, more fulfilling ways. Instead, students are likely to get the message that they have to be civil to one another in this particular place. The abuse then moves elsewhere: hallways, lunchrooms, buses, and MySpace and Facebook pages.

Parents and schools need to encourage students not just to tolerate differences, but to appreciate them. Girls and boys need to know that they can be who they are - academic or athletic, gay or straight, sexually active or abstinent, of any race or ethnicity - and be accepted by others in schools, and that other students and faculty care about them, regardless of the information they have about other students or the type or frequency of their sexuality.

This is a lot harder to do than simply passing new legislation.

The Netherlands national Zero Programme (as distinct from "zero tolerance" policies here), started in 2003, insists that all parties in schools are involved in a no-bully campaign "to create a broad base of support." It's not just a top-down anti-bullying policy, but a program that engages and involves the whole school. This program and the earlier Nordic version, the five-track method (help for the bully, the victim, the bystander, teachers and parents), has helped reduce school bullying by as much as 50 percent.

These programs succeed because the schools commit to training all school faculty, and to continuing the program's work after it formally ends. Lack of continuity undermines many of the approaches in the United States: Students here lament that successful models like "Challenge Day" help for a couple of weeks, but after they're dropped, everyone goes back to "normal."

One successful U.S. program is at Robert C. Murphy Junior High School in Stony Brook. The Get A Voice Project was started in 2002 by art teacher Laurie Mandel. Through professional development for a core team of adults in the school community, Mandel and her collaborators train faculty to create a more positive, respectful culture.

The program has reduced the number of incidents reported to the principal's office, and the students have significant transformations. "I spoke up, and that person listened. I made a difference," the students often say, with some surprise. "On their own, they won't stand up and say something," Mandel explains. So the program tries to enable them to "use voices of courage and leadership." Students come to trust that if they see something happening and speak up, someone else will speak up, too.

If we replicate programs like the Get a Voice Project and the Zero Programme, and help students appreciate themselves and one another, the United States will become a leader in eradicating bullying rather than the country that boasts the most school shootings and bullycides.

It's a school's responsibility to create supportive and empathetic environments where students can learn and thrive.